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How Scripted Television Is Artfully Focusing Its Lens on Food

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Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a column by Joshua David Stein which examines eating and drinking on screen. In this special edition, Stein takes to the small screen:

Nathaniel Bell/Netflix

Whether we are in a golden age of television and if so, which wave we're in, is a matter the nattering pop-culture nabobs can parse ad infinitum. But indisputably we are in the very first golden age of food on television. I am not, of course, referring to the kitchen-as-battleground era, inaugurated with Top Chef and apotheosized in Food Network programming like Cutthroat Kitchen or Chopped. In these programs, food and the cooking of it is yet another simulacra for war, as if the NFL wasn't enough. Though popular, these weren't the golden age. They were the Dark Ages.

The depiction of lox commingled with love of a city, love of life, a melancholic euphoria of being alive.

But today, just as what we watch has become wilder, weirder, and better, so too has food's cameo turned refulgent. I've noticed for a while how food has been swept up in the auteur lens of shows like Louie, Better Call Saul, Transparent, and others. The first time I became aware of something wonderful happening was way back in the third season of Louie (which airs on the FX Network). In that 2012 episode, systemic schlub Louie is on a date with maybe-crazy Liz (Parker Posey), who takes him to NYC's iconic appetizer shop Russ & Daughters. What follows is a quick-cut symphony of smoked fish and nascent love. Never has the depiction of Nova lox been commingled with love of a city, love of life, a melancholic euphoria of being alive.

Many of the shows I watch today — you know, the kind of television one watches to feel smarter as the credits roll as opposed to more dissolute — casually toss off similar, incredibly moving scenes of food. I knew, for instance, I'd love Better Call Saul, Vince Gilligan's AMC Network follow-up to Breaking Bad, from the first montage, which takes place at a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. From above we see the rolling out and spicing, rolling up and icing, of those caloric fat-making machines we call cinnamon rolls. Accompanied by the syrupy strings of "Address Unknown" by the Ink Spots, this is like a melancholic Busby Berkeley sequence. It's not food porn, exactly: It's more like edible cinematographer smut. And if it weren't so soaked in mono no aware — that is, beauty tinged with sadness — it might be a product placement for the "market leader among cinnamon roll bakeries." (It wasn't, but that doesn't mean the brand didn't take full advantage of its cameo.)

Historically, diners and delicatessens in movies have, as I've written, been thought of as an empty stage: But they are obviously more than just a place to put two people. How we act and with whom, what we order and how we do that, our observations about the deli case, those things make us who we are. What's great now is that those interactions at restaurants, what makes restaurants themselves tick, are now being used to chug the plot along or deepen our understanding of characters.

Recent food-focused scenes call to mind Busby Berkeley sequences and Frederick Wiseman docs.

Take, for instance, Josh and Ali Pfefferman in the second episode of the tremendous Amazon show Transparent. The siblings (played by Jay Duplass and Gaby Hoffman) find themselves at Canter's Delicatessen on N. Fairfax in Los Angeles. The scene starts with a montage of knishes, cherry cheese danishes, the rhythmic strophe and antistrophe of a meat slicer, the bifurcation of pastrami sandwiches, and, finally three fat sandwiches on the pass. It's only a few seconds — maybe 10, tops — of slow delicatessen counter pans, but it unfolds like a mini-Frederick Wiseman documentary. Ali imagines the counterman after his long shift, sitting in a folding chair eating his dinner alone. Josh doesn't. Ali adds an order of tofu schmear to the order. Josh objects on behalf of his mother, who doesn't like her delicatessen orders messed with. In storytelling, the nucleus of a character is discovered just like the nucleus of an atom: by throwing things at it and see what bounces back. This scene tells us loads about these guys — and that the delicatessen is the method of exposition, well, that's awesome.

Another example of food-as-show-not-tell can be found in Netflix's House of Cards, which warrants its own column. I mean, do regular presidents spend that much time in the White House kitchen? After securing a promise from Presbo Frankie Bones (Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey) for a United Nations appointment, his wife Claire (Robin Wright) heads to the kitchen to make fried eggs.

It's a little heavy handed, sure. Or rather, it's as heavy as a Lodge skillet hitting you upside the head: We get it, [showrunner] Beau Williman, Frank and Claire Underwood are in this together. But I can't imagine this scene — or the deli scene or the Russ & Daughters scene — happening five or six years ago. I can't imagine Friends or Seinfeld, both programs with a restaurant or cafe at their centers, taking the time to ponderously pan the pie case or, in rhythmic cuts, depict a shot being pulled at Central Perk.

As the televised aesthetic in general becomes more refined and more cinematic, food is swept up in the frame.

This narrative device would never have emerged had not the public's appetite for (and the director's skill at) using food to tell a story been cultivated. And who cultivated it? Some of it, I'm sure, is incidental. As the televised aesthetic in general becomes more refined and more cinematic, food is simply swept up in the frame. Some of it, I'm sure too, can be attributed to how liberated shows are becoming from the time-crunching demands of the traditional 22-minute plot driven episode. We can afford to set the mood with kishkas and herring.

But look at that House of Cards sequence again: the nobs, the burners, the angles. Look familiar? It should. It's Top Chef's opening sequence, without those stupid interstitials of contestants posing. As much as it pains me to say, today's golden age only exists thanks to the vast popularity of smaller-minded shows — like Top Chef and Iron Chef — that came before them. Just as Scripture says, the darkest hour is just before the dawn.

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